Updated: 4 p.m.
Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday announced a statewide order requiring Minnesotans to wear masks in restaurants, stores and other public indoor gathering spaces as a way to stem the spread of COVID-19 and put the state on a path back to normalcy.
“This is the quickest way to ending the COVID pandemic,” he told reporters. “It is the surest way to getting us to the therapeutics and vaccines” while continuing to reopen the economy.
If 90 to 95 percent of Minnesotans complied, businesses could stay open, kids could return safely to school buildings, and we "get back that life that we all miss so much,” he said.
Under the order, businesses will have to post notice of the new regulations and ensure patrons comply. Children age 5 and younger are exempt. Cities with tougher ordinances can go beyond the state indoor-only rules.
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It takes effect Saturday.
Walz has been signaling for days that such an order was coming. On Tuesday, he noted that businesses support such a uniform move as do care providers and the state’s health leaders.
The governor said he decided to move now on a statewide order after watching the percentage of positive tests climb the past few weeks in Minnesota from under 4 percent to about 5 percent.
Cities and towns representing nearly 30 percent of Minnesota’s population have approved similar local mask requirements. More than half of states now require the use of masks or face coverings in public settings. Republican governors in Indiana and Ohio also posted statewide mask wearing orders Wednesday.
Walz compared the inconvenience of wearing a mask to wearing seat belts in cars and preventing smoking in indoor spaces, changes in behavior required by government that ultimately saved lives.
“This is a small sacrifice for a potential big gain,” he said.
Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, have said a statewide mandate would be a mistake.
Last week, Walz told MPR News that he was hoping to get legislative Republicans to buy in. On Wednesday, however, Gazelka slammed Walz’s coming order.
“Once again, I find myself asking why one-size-fits-all is the only option for a mask mandate,” he said in a statement. “Businesses and individuals are already requiring and wearing masks in most situations, so the mandate feels like a heavy-handed, broad approach that won’t work well for every situation.
No ‘mask police’
The state is working now with local chambers of commerce around the state to make masks available to businesses to give to customers who don’t have one.
Officials don’t want businesses to be in a position of being “mask police,” said Steve Grove, commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development.
If a patron says she can’t wear a mask for medical reasons, store owners can allow it without delving into deeper explanations, he said. Bar and restaurant patrons don’t have to keep masks on as they eat and drink at a table with their party.
The order does allow for a petty misdemeanor with possible fine up to $100. Businesses could face steeper fines for noncompliance.
Walz, though, said he wants authorities “handing out masks, not tickets” and that businesses should not escalate confrontations, adding: "We don't want someone to accidentally get famous on the internet because they're throwing a tantrum in Trader Joe's."
Key businesses and business leaders didn't object to the Walz order. Best Buy called it “an appropriate public health response to keep frontline retail workers, customers and our communities safe.”
Minnesota Chamber of Commerce president Doug Loon said his members shared Walz’s push for broader mask use as a way to propel the economy forward in a safe way. The chamber, representing some 2,300 Minnesota businesses, has been working with the Walz administration on way to carry out the order.
“What we don’t want to see happen is businesses, their employees finding themselves in an unnecessary confrontation with a customer,” Loon said. “Nobody wants that.”
Exemptions to the order include:
People with health conditions that make it difficult to tolerate wearing a face covering
Any person who has trouble breathing or unable to remove the face covering without help
People who at work with jobs where wearing a face covering would create a safety hazard as determined by local, state, or federal regulators or workplace safety guidelines
Officials emphasized that children age 2 and younger should never wear a mask.
School decisions approaching
The governor is expected to announce a plan next week on bringing kids back into school buildings. The state Education Department has told school leaders to pretty much prepare for anything, including some combination of in-school and online instruction.
“Nobody wants kids in school more than me,” and state officials have been working for months on how to do that safely, Walz, a former high school teacher, said Tuesday.
“We’re doing everything possible to get those kids back in those classrooms … to keep them there but also have some nimbleness” to move back to an online or hybrid model if cases start to climb, he said, adding: “This is gonna be a challenge.”
On Wednesday, the governor hinted that the state will lay out standards for schools on operating in the pandemic and then give them flexibility to work within those standards.
"It won't necessarily look the same everywhere,” he said, “but the outcomes need to be the same — kids and staff safe in that learning environment.”
Hospitalizations start to climb
News of the statewide masking order came as the Health Department on Wednesday posted new numbers showing the recent jump in COVID-19 cases is beginning to surface in hospitals.
The agency reported total current hospitalizations (273) and the number of people needing intensive care (119) rising. Officials had been anticipating this kind of shift given the rise in new cases surfacing in recent weeks.
The state reported four new deaths, continuing a three-week trend of mostly single-digit daily death counts; 1,552 people in Minnesota have died from the disease since the pandemic began.
Case counts, however, continued to climb, with 507 new cases reported Wednesday, part of a concerning July upswing, although the size of the increases in recent days appear to have flattened.
Of the 47,961 cases confirmed in Minnesota since the pandemic began, about 88 percent of people infected have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.
Cases growing in many age brackets
State health officials continue to worry about the recent spike of coronavirus cases in younger Minnesotans, including that those infected will inadvertently spread the virus to grandparents and other more vulnerable populations.
Minnesotans in their 20s now make up the age group with the most confirmed cases in the pandemic, with more than 11,000. The median age of Minnesotans infected has been trending down in recent weeks and is now 37 years old.
Health investigators are also starting to see more cases in many age brackets, including ages 30 through 59, as more people get together for family gatherings and summer fun without social distancing, Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said Monday.
It’s not like the situation the past few weeks where 20-somethings meeting in bars drove the increases. Now, analysts are seeing an evolution in the “larger, gradual increase in social activities,” she added.
New cases are also rising in northern Minnesota. Cases in Beltrami County, home to Bemidji, have more than doubled in the past week and a half, from 53 to 115 on Wednesday. Ehresmann this week said the case increase is tied to spread from athletic events and other public gatherings.
Meatpacking hot spots remain
Many of the outbreaks outside the Twin Cities metro area are focused around meatpacking plants. Officials have intensified testing in those hot spots, uncovering more infections.
That includes Mower County in southeastern Minnesota, where there were 1,019 confirmed cases as of Wednesday. Mower County is home to Hormel Foods and Quality Pork Processors. Both have been partnering with Mayo Clinic to ramp up employee testing.
While some of Mower County’s positive cases are associated with people who work in the facilities and with the people they live with, county officials say they are also seeing transmission among people who live in the county but work in other counties where coronavirus is present.
Nobles, in southwestern Minnesota, reported 1,713 confirmed cases as of Wednesday, with six deaths. About 1 in 13 people now have tested positive for COVID-19 in the county since the pandemic began, although the count of new cases has slowed considerably in recent weeks.
Worthington’s massive JBS pork processing plant was the epicenter of the Nobles outbreak. The JBS plant shut on April 20 but has since reopened with expanded hygiene and health monitoring measures.
Similar problems have been reported in Stearns County, where COVID-19 cases tied to two packing plants — Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant in Cold Spring and Jennie-O Turkey in Melrose — skyrocketed in May. An undisclosed number of workers at both plants have tested positive for the virus.
There were about 55 confirmed cases in Stearns County in early May. By Wednesday, confirmed cases were at 2,666 with 19 deaths.
Kandiyohi County in west-central Minnesota is also dealing with a significant caseload more than two months after officials with the Jennie-O turkey processing plant there said some employees had tested positive for the coronavirus.
As of Wednesday, the Health Department reported 627 people have now tested positive. The county had confirmed three COVID-19 cases in late April.
Cases have also climbed noticeably in Lyon County (385 cases) around a turkey processor in Marshall.
Developments from around the state
Science Museum lays off more than 150
The Science Museum of Minnesota says it’s laying off more than 150 people, but will reopen in late August with limited hours and offerings.
The museum says the COVID-19 pandemic has kept away an expected quarter-million visitors since closing in mid-March. The museum has already lost $10 million and expects another $20 million drop in revenue this fiscal year.
Museum officials expect attendance to decline as much as 75 percent.
The museum will open initially only to members. Public visitors will be let back in starting the first week of September.
— Tim Nelson | MPR News
Cub Foods goes mask-mandatory next week
One of Minnesota’s largest grocers is joining the list of retailers requiring shoppers to wear face masks. Cub Foods, owned by Rhode Island-based United Natural Foods, says the requirement will go into effect next Tuesday.
The company says the move is in alignment with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. The company already requires employees to wear masks in its stores.
Other major retailers, including Target, Walmart and Best Buy, announced similar measures in recent days, requiring customers to wear masks while in their stores.
— MPR News staff
Minnesota food shelves, already busy, brace for bigger demand: The COVID-19 pandemic has created huge demand for free or reduced-cost food across the state as Minnesotans have lost jobs and children missed out on school lunches. Food shelves anticipate even more people will rely on them to get enough to eat.
Arts board announces simplified grant program for MN artists struggling in COVID-19 economy: The Minnesota State Arts Board has approved a trio of new grants meant to help artists and organizations weather the economic turmoil created by COVID-19. But artists say the new grants don't go far enough to serve historically marginalized communities.
Masks now required in St. Cloud, Roseville, Bemidji: The Minnesota cities Monday became the latest Minnesota city to require masks in indoor public places. Mandates in St. Cloud and Bemidji immediately went into effect; Roseville’s takes effect next week.
COVID-19 in Minnesota
Data in these graphs are based off Minnesota Department of Health cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.
The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.